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Concern for water challenges in Indigenous communities runs deep at Rotary

For years, the Rotary Club of Guelph’s Indigenous Awareness (IA) Committee puzzled over how they could meaningfully support Indigenous communities in their right to access clean drinking water. “It’s ridiculous that a country like Canada has drinking water issues. It doesn’t make sense. Personally, I believe we need to help support Indigenous Peoples and clean water is where we can start,” said Dianne Dance, whose mother spearheaded the Guelph chapter’s Indigenous Awareness Committee in 2012 and inspired her to get involved.

Despite their motivation to help, the committee acknowledged that water challenges are complex. To move the needle on this challenge requires more than money and outrage. 

And then they learned about Water First.

In February 2019, after a meeting with Water First and learning about the approach to building strong partnerships with Indigenous communities that create lasting results, “We finally felt that maybe this is some way we can support the water issue in Indigenous communities,” said Dianne.

The powerful Rotary wheels began to turn. Concern turned into action.

A sustainable outlook

While the IA committee was researching how to best help, the rest of the Rotary Club of Guelph, along with 30 other Ontario Rotary clubs, were working on a special fundraiser to support clean water projects in Ontario.

“My dream was that the money raised would go towards a water project in Indigenous communities within Canada, because the need here is as great or greater than a lot of Rotary’s international [water] projects,” said Helmuth Slisarenko, a retired auto mechanic and active member of the Rotary Club of Guelph.

The IA and the fundraising committees came together and decided to fund the Water First Internship Program. “One of the things that attracted us to this program was the education aspect. We could see that through training local personnel, water treatment infrastructure would be well-used, well-maintained and ultimately achieve its purpose, which is to make sure that everybody has access to clean water,” said Liz Sandals, a Rotary Club of Guelph member, former Guelph MPP and Ontario Minister of Education.

Rotarians planting the Rotary Forest in Guelph Ontario

From ‘seed money’ to global grant

Inspired by the Water First Internship Program, the Rotary Club of Guelph’s “grant guru”, Ab Moore, suggested they use the funds raised to apply for a district grant to match donations for further funding. In addition, they applied to the Rotary Foundation for the possibility of securing a Global Grant. Soon, members from various Rotary clubs were convening via Zoom to discuss the program and to try to accumulate as many “club” funds as possible to maximize district and Rotary Foundation matching grant dollars.

By the summer of 2020, the Global Grant was approved by Rotary International for approximately $115,000 for Water First to use these funds for the Internship program being delivered in partnership with eight Indigenous communities in the Georgian Bay area of Ontario. 

“For the Rotary International committee to match the funds that we raised for this program certainly speaks to the faith and trust we have in Water First in carrying out this program,” said Helmuth.

The impact on Water First

“We started our third internship in June 2021 and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without the support of Rotary,” said Water First Development Manager, Sam Murray. “In addition to funding this program, we have received many inquiries from Rotary clubs across Ontario and Manitoba because of the awareness raised about Water First and our work in partnership with Indigenous communities. These connections are very significant for us and our programs.”

Dianne is gratified that the work she and her fellow Rotary club members have done will have an impact on the work that Water First is dedicated to. “[The interest] speaks to how much Canadians are concerned about this, and have been wanting to help but not knowing how. Clubs are waking up to the fact that we can be involved in a meaningful way to support Indigenous communities in Canada.”

The Rotary Club of Guelph has proven that sometimes a single drop of interest in water issues can turn into a deluge.